Matt Harvey's Struggles Have Impact Beyond Present-Day Mets

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 6, 2016

New York Mets starting pitcher Matt Harvey (33) watches a video replay of a solo home run he allowed to Atlanta Braves Mallex Smith during the fifth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in New York. The ball bounced on the top of the left field wall and was ruled a home run instead after a video review. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The New York Mets had every reason to plan on Matt Harvey being one of baseball's best pitchers this season. When healthy, he generally hasn't known how to be anything else.

But now the Mets should find themselves inching back toward the drawing board. And not just so they can change the section marked "2016 Plans."

Harvey was indeed supposed to be part of a starting rotation that, as Zachary Levine highlighted at Fox Sports, had a chance to feature the best homegrown crop of pitchers in history. But with a 4.76 ERA in six starts, the Dark Knight has been more like the dark blight.

For now, this is but a minor blemish on the 17-10 Mets. Because of the 2.50 ERA that Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Bartolo Colon have posted in their 19 starts, the Mets rotation still has the third-best ERA in baseball. That rotation will also get Zack Wheeler back eventually, and scoring runs shouldn't be a problem for the Mets offense.

But lest anyone entertain the notion of the Mets turning into an absolute world-beater when the Dark Knight returns, the trouble is that the word "when" implies certainty.

May 3, 2016; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets manager Terry Collins (10) takes the ball from New York Mets starting pitcher Matt Harvey (33) during the sixth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field. The Braves defeated the Mets 3-0. Mandatory
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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Early though it still is, bad luck doesn't work as an excuse for Harvey's poor start. There's one area where something is clearly wrong: After averaging 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings en route to a 2.53 ERA between 2012 and 2015, he's averaging only 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings this season.

This is not accidental. The right-hander's average fastball velocity of 94.1 mph is still good but also a huge departure from last year's 95.9. His slider's velocity is down as well, and Timothy Finnegan of SB Nation's Amazin' Avenue highlighted how it has lost more than just velocity. As a result, hitters are hitting Harvey's two best moneymakers at a .312 clip, according to Baseball Savant.

Matt Harvey's Fastball Velocity
YearFB Velo

Looming like an ominous specter are the 216 innings Harvey worked in his return from Tommy John surgery last season. Scott Boras, uber-agent and talking enthusiast, expressed his concern to Ken Davidoff of the New York Post about whether his 27-year-old client is feeling that workload now.

The bright side, such as it is, is that the man himself feels fine physically.

"My body doesn't feel bad," Harvey said this week, per Anthony DiComo of MLB.com. "I don't feel tired. I don't feel any downside from the workload last year. It's just right now, I'm in a little funk with my mechanics, and we're working to get rid of that."

Blaming mechanics is straight out of "Good Baseball Excuses 101," but Harvey could be telling the truth. As reported by Marc Carig of Newsday, Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen already has his finger on the problem:

Marc Carig @MarcCarig

Warthen says Harvey is collapsing his back leg in the stretch. Hurts consistency.

If Harvey can get his mechanics squared away, perhaps his power stuff will return and Dorothy will wake up and realize this was all just a bad dream.

But that may be a pretty big if. Though it's the year-to-year velocity loss from 2015 to 2016 that stands out, Brooks Baseball can show that Harvey's velocity has been on a rocky road since peaking in 2013:

Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.

Smoothing out this rocky road may require a favor from Father Time rather than a mere mechanical tweak. Though Harvey's not old, he may not be young enough to defy an aging curve that, as Bill Petti of FanGraphs found in 2012, starts robbing starting pitchers of velocity once they get past their mid-20s.

This doesn't necessarily mean Harvey is hereby doomed to be one of baseball's worst pitchers forever. His stuff is still pretty good, after all. And if nothing else, a mechanical tweak could solve a location pattern that's featured too many mistakes.

Harvey's vintage Dark Knight self, however, could very well be gone for good. On a longer timeline, that comes with both good news and bad news.

The Mets may have dodged a bullet by not signing Harvey to an extension when the idea was floated around during spring training. Harvey was open to it, but his status as a Boras client and his upcoming free agency after 2018 likely meant his extension couldn't have been for less than market value.

With the Mets' notoriously messy finances and a collection of other young stars who will also need extension attention before long, locking up Harvey might have created more problems than it would have solved.

But just because the Mets dodged that bullet doesn't mean Harvey's struggles are a good thing for their future. That's obvious to the extent that a team never enjoys having a fallen ace on its hands, but this is also a case where the Mets can no longer look forward to getting Harvey off their hands.

Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

Remember, the idea of trading him was also in the air this past offseason. And it made sense to a degree. Dealing Harvey was a logical way for the Mets to subtract from a strength (pitching) to help what was then a weakness (offense).

What the Mets did instead was keep Harvey and shock everyone by bringing back Yoenis Cespedes. This was arguably the right idea, as one general manager told John Harper of the New York Daily News that the best time to trade Harvey would be the following winter.

“In my experience, his value wouldn’t be that much greater three years from free agency rather than two," the GM said. "In this case, his value could be even higher next year, after a second year back from Tommy John. But if you want to maximize the return on him, you do need to make a decision at that time.”

Harvey's value on the 2016-17 market would be higher not just because of a second straight season of healthy pitching, but also because of the lack of ace pitchers (it's Stephen Strasburg or bust) available in free agency. And if Cespedes were to take advantage of the opt-out on his three-year contract, the Mets could trade Harvey for a cheaper, better and/or more controllable bat.

But this ship is sailing further and further out to sea with each start he makes. And the way things are shaping up, this could become a genuine problem rather than a minor annoyance.

With Cespedes once again hitting everything in sight, he probably can't wait to exercise his opt-out at the end of the year. If trading Harvey for an impact bat to replace him isn't an option, the Mets may have to pony up the big bucks to bring Cespedes back again. And since that would mean less money to earmark for their core stars, they may decide to let him go and take the hit.

Bottom line: The Mets should be able to survive Harvey's struggles this season, but he may already be dooming them to be a worse team beyond 2016. He's unlikely to serve them as an ace either in their rotation or on the trading block.

This wasn't the plan, but you know what they say: The best-laid plans of mice and Mets often go awry.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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